DiscoverLady Killers with Lucy Worsley19. Jane Toppan - Serial Killer Nurse
19. Jane Toppan - Serial Killer Nurse

19. Jane Toppan - Serial Killer Nurse

Update: 2023-05-192


Lucy Worsley investigates the historical crimes of women from a contemporary, feminist perspective.

In this episode, Lucy is joined by Dr Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, to visit Massachusetts in New England, USA and discover how one nurse became a notorious serial killer.

Jane Toppan is a well-respected and successful private nurse in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She spends her time moving from one family to another, caring for them until they either recover, or pass away.

In June 1901, Jane gets a visit from her friend, Mattie Davis. But upon her arrival, Mattie falls ill. Jane takes care of her until she dies a week later. After this, Jane moves into the Davis family’s house to help them cope with the loss of their mother. But soon, one by one, the other members of the family die in quick succession.

Jane is onto her next job, but suspicions are soon raised about the care she’s providing. She is followed secretly by a policeman as the bodies of the Davis family are exhumed and tested for poison. Traces of morphine and atropine – substances that Jane Toppan would have had access to in her role as a private nurse – are discovered and Jane is arrested.

To help Lucy explore this case, historian Dr Elizabeth DeWolfe visits Massachusetts General Hospital Archives to discover what it was like to be a nurse at the turn of the 20th century. She also visits the Boston Public Library to see how the press reacted to the murderous nurse.

Lucy and Katherine discuss Jane’s case and the impact it had on the relatively new profession of nursing. Lucy also wants to know how Jane Toppan compares to serial killers today.

We think of nurses as caring, virtuous and we trust them with our life. Jane Toppan will make you think twice.

Producer: Hannah Fisher
Readers: Laurel Lefkow and Jonathan Keeble
Sound Design: Chris Maclean
Series Producer: Julia Hayball

A StoryHunter production for BBC Radio 4









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19. Jane Toppan - Serial Killer Nurse

19. Jane Toppan - Serial Killer Nurse

BBC Radio 4